Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A World-Class Research University for Malaysia

Ong Shien Jin and Charis Quay Huei Li are doctoral students at Harvard University and Stanford University respectively. This article was originally submitted to the New Straits Times and The Star on 7 October 2004 as a Letter to the Editor, but was not published in either paper. I think that they raise excellent points in this article and that it was a pity that either paper didn't publish their letter. We've gotten permission from the authors to post their letter on this blog. Note that this was written in 2004 and that recent developments in the education scene in Malaysia may have changed the opinion of the authors on this issue. Enjoy the read!

We applaud the Prime Minister's recent announcement of the government's intention to make conditions in Malaysia conducive to research and development efforts and thus to attract home Malaysian scientists and researchers abroad. Malaysia has industrialised rapidly over the past few decades, but she cannot rely on manufacturing forever; therefore, this move to strengthen R&D is timely.

The 'brain drain' of the most talented Malaysians to other countries is no accident. The failure of our universities to attract and retain the best talent stems from the following factors.

First, the salary offered to lecturers is not competitive. A junior professor's salary at US research universities start at about RM20,000 a month. [1] Factoring in the difference in cost of living, this figure is equivalent to almost RM9,000 in Malaysia, much higher than the RM3,000 currently offered to starting lecturers. [2]

Second, there is inadequate research funding available. The setting up of IRPA (Intensification of Research in Priority Areas) under the 7th Malaysia Plan (1995-2000) was a step in the right direction, but the yearly average of around RM100 million allocated for R&D is not enough to be globally competitive. [3] Countries like the United States and Japan that have benefited significantly from R&D spend billions of dollars a year on research. [4-10]

Third, there is too little emphasis on research. Local university staff teach up to twenty in-class hours a week and do much of their own marking. This leaves little time to do research. By way of contrast, science department staff at US research universities usually teach three in-class hours a week, with some junior staff given a lighter teaching load to enable them to concentrate on research. In addition, almost all the marking and tutorials are conducted by postgraduate teaching assistants.

Fourth, the Malaysian research community does not have a critical mass of researchers and is not integrated into the global community. These factors are vitally important given the increasingly collaborative nature of scientific research. In the simplest case, this occurs in the form of sharing expensive equipment which no research group could afford by themselves. [11] It has also become increasingly common for new technological developments to require the expertise of researchers from more than one field, often from more than one country and across the industry/academia divide. [12] In addition, few researchers have achieved major breakthroughs without intellectual input from friends and colleagues.

Finally, recognition of talent is lacking. Almost all university lecturers are guaranteed lifetime employment regardless of performance. Furthermore, to our best of knowledge, job performance, namely performance in research and teaching, is often not the main criterion for promotions and for the awarding of research funding.
Transforming all the universities in Malaysia into world-class research institutions is both extremely difficult and requires enormous amounts of money. We therefore propose, as an initial step forward, that the government focus its efforts on developing a single world-class research university.

A single world-class research university is far better than multiple mediocre universities. It will be able to contribute to the bulk of the nation’s R&D effort and lead Malaysia into becoming a developed nation. For instance, it is the few top universities in the United States that have made the most of the breakthroughs in research, thus enabling the United States to be the world leader in science and technology. In contrast, Europe's egalitarian funding policies have been cited as a contributing factor to their comparatively weak R&D sector. [13]

What do we envision for this world-class research university?

A world-class university needs world-class professors. In this regard, we should not only focus our efforts on attracting talented Malaysian researchers abroad, but also on brilliant researchers of other nationalities. Most expatriates love living in Malaysia, but unfortunately this fact is not well-known. Also, as our PM has noted, other countries have been tirelessly recruiting Malaysian students at top universities worldwide. Their recruiting agencies employ various techniques, e.g. having information on government initiatives readily available on well-designed websites, offering to meet with prospects, wining and dining them at receptions graced by high-ranking officials, and placing advertisements in alumni magazines and publications of professional societies. Some of these tactics are perhaps extravagant and unnecessary, but we would do well to discern and adopt the practical and efficient ones.

In light of the importance of connections and collaboration in scientific research, the initial-stage hiring should focus more on established researchers than on freshly-minted PhDs. Many countries that have recently built up their R&D sector have done precisely this. Notable examples include Nobel laureate Yang Chen Ning's return to Taiwan and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology's recent recruitment of Robert Laughlin from Stanford, also a Nobel laureate. [14, 15]
In order for the first-class brains to go about their work, this world-class university needs significantly more research funding. Basic research should be the major focus, because most significant scientific progress relies on basic research.

In addition, while salary is not the utmost concern for many researchers, most talented people would like to be fairly compensated according to prevailing market rates. It is unrealistic to expect a world-class professor to relocate to Malaysia if he or she is being compensated much less than he or she would be overseas.
Furthermore, promotion and distribution of research funding need to be fair and transparent. Our public universities are entrenched in the procedures of the Civil Service, which are unsuitable for research universities. One of the more obvious problems is the concentration of the power to promote or deny promotion in the hands of one or two of a civil servant's direct superiors. This leads, among other things, to the non-promotion of capable people who are perceived as threats to their superiors' positions.

We therefore propose that our world-class university adopt world-class hiring and promotion procedures. We are most familiar with the US system, where promising young people are hired as junior faculty and given 6 to 8 years to prove themselves. After that period of time, they are subject to external peer review and only the outstanding professors who have done world-class research are retained. [16, 17] While this system works well in the US, applying it to our universities immediately suggests many practical difficulties. We strongly urge the government to study hiring and funding practices at research powerhouses in Europe, the Commonwealth and Asia.

Running a world-class university is a costly venture, but it is nonetheless worthy of a long-term national investment.

It is necessary for the government to provide the initial funding but when the university is successful, contributions from private companies and alumni could supplement a significant portion of the required expenses. In fact, this is the case with many top US universities, such as MIT and Stanford University, where private industry funding increased significantly after these universities proved to be capable of supplying valuable knowledge to the private sector.

We expect the 21st century to be an era where rapid advancements in the sciences will result in unprecedented improvements in living standards. Advanced scientific knowledge will be highly valuable and nations that invest in this scientific revolution will gain significant a advantage over those that are reluctant to do so.

Note: references for this article have not been included.


learn-from-history said...

A well written article with good, common-sense points, but asking the impossible from our current NEP-centred government.

To ask our government to set up an elite world-class research university by going globally and hiring the best, based on proven performance and regardless of race and nationality, is entirely contrary to the existence and belief of Umno, the great protector of the Malay race. Simply no way! Umno prefers our local ‘premiere’ universities like UM, UKM, USM, etc. to be headed and populated by Malay academics – jaguh kampung.

No wonder the editors of the New Straits Times and The Star did not even bother to waste their time to publish the letter.

Malaysia is not like Ireland that values and proactively sources for talents from around the world and based in Ireland. Ireland firmly believes in creating value through talent management and it knows that a critical mass of key talent can eventually lead, motivate and drive business success.

Just have a look at the website of SFI (Science Foundation Ireland) and see how professional SFI is in attracting talents.

sham said...

imho, some if not many of us would want to move forward and see progress, not just in education but also in other areas in life here in malaysia, but, the powers that be have a different point of view on that, and progress will come but it must come in their own terms and time.

sad to say, there's still too much politicking in everything here, a top position means power rather than opportunity to do good, do you think they will appoint a 'mat salleh' or any other foreigner for that matter to lead a research institution? if anyone were to be appointed, wouldn't it be one of their own first?

there's too much pride at stake, and unfortunately pride is very much entrenched in the local culture, so much so that it blinds decision making. it could be postcolonial mentality, even though we're shy of 50 years of independence.

there're many issue to address and i'm sure others could add on to it.

Anonymous said...

RM9,000? aiks. jadi mp or local councillor pun not get so much. buat apa bagi budak budak gaji tinggi sangat? our student think lecturer lousy then go study overseas lah.

research funding? gula pun tak cukup. petrol pun kena subsidi. mana mau cari wang bagi?

3 hour teaching only? buat apa bagi gaji tinggi tinggi. buang garam dalam laut. teori saja pandai cakap.

not enough researchers? not our fault lah. sudah pandai lari luar negri cari duit. sebab tak boleh harap punya orang.

world class uni buat apa? boleh kenyang kah?

Charis Quay said...

Thanks, Kian Ming, for posting this. :-)

In response to the comments so far, and also to the Star article by Patricia John highlighted a few posts back, let me offer a few thoughts which may seem at first tangential to the topic under discussion.

It seems to me that one of the greatest temptations which Malaysians, and particularly those studying abroad, face is the temptation to despair over our country. Almost everywhere we turn, we hear only voices like those of the commenters' above. To be sure, there are many things that are non-ideal about Malaysia, just as there are many things that are non-ideal about the US or any other country, but is the right response to ferret out these things and to wallow in blame, self-pity and hopelessness, or is it to offer constructive criticism and visions of better alternatives?

I put it to you that being good citizens and loving our country means in part 'bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things'. This does not mean unrealistic optimism, but rather assessing the state of things objectively and with sober judgment, always with an eye to how they might be better, discerning our role in the process of nation-building and being willing to put up with inconveniences to be part of that process. It means thinking and working together as a country for the good of Malaysia with our fellow citizens, instead of against them. It also means encouraging and taking at face value people who are trying to make changes for the better, and taking the time to think through and constructively criticise their proposals, rather than indulging in naysaying and cynicism (it is an indulgence) as a default attitude.

That at least is where I am coming from, or where I try to come from - I won't say that I am always able to avoid cynicism and despair. Try that out and see if it fits.

Like many others, I was dismayed by the recent ASLI affair; yet at the same time it was very heartening to see that there are among our countrymen people who are willing to work quietly and with integrity with and within our institutions, and - when push comes to shove - hold on to their principles at great personal cost. I wish Dr. Lim Teck Ghee well in the future and hope that he will inspire many in my generation to lives, not merely acts, of dedication, sacrifice and - above all - hope.

Anonymous said...

If one had gone through similar routes to obtaining a tenure-track position in the US, then I would expect that this person would easily command >RM6k/month in Malaysia, which really is equivalent to a typical lecturer's salary the world over in terms of money left over after budgeting cost of living (e.g. I am currently paying 40% tax). It follows that just comparing numbers in R&D investment is like comparing apples to oranges since the overhead cost of developed countries is far higher than that in Malaysia.

I have my doubts that apparently 'it is the few top universities in the United States that have made the most of the breakthroughs in research' and so on about Europe. Don't know where that come from.

I believe that there is one and only one major barrier in improving the quality of education in Malaysia, and that is the systematic discrimation based on race.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Malay student in IPTA here.I have been following this blog for the past few months.

To my dissapointment, I have to agree on most issue discuss here.The quality of education here is basically going down the drain.

I see that in the classroom (even in the universities) students are being spoonfed. Few lecturers who try to keep the class participative or urged them to put on their thinking cap are being rated low by students.Faced with this, lecturers in most case would spoonfed the students.

It hard to see some of my classmates took their place in university for granted. Many sees that university just like degree factory making them possible get good job after graduation. I do not deny there exist correlation between education attainment and good salary. Some students just sit at the back of the class, minding their own business while the lecturer is teaching in front.

Students expect the lecturers to hand out the formula while at the same time lecturers are having hard time trying to cope with teaching (in some case up to 12 hours) and researching. They do not have an army of postgraduate teaching assistant here in Malaysia. Some even reluctant to ask help from students, afraid the line between students and lecturers being crossed.

A Nobel prize winner in Economics said(I don't seem to recall who at this moment), that in university like Harvard lecturers and students act like each other partners each equally on the quest for knowledge not for one of them to be superior and the other inferior.

I view the crisis in the higher education in Malaysia starts from the attitude either the students or lecturers. Maybe we could fixed that first before asking for more fund for R&D.And as a students, I might share some of the blame.

P.S. Maybe you could invite some local universities students as guest blogger. Then we can really know what is happening in the local U. Though I doubt that some of them never have a clue on anything except for the entertainment industry.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Yan C N left for PRC and not Taiwan as mentioned.

chenchow said...

Thanks for sharing on the situation at IPTA. I myself have given talk at INTEC a couple of times to those scholars who are going to leave for US, and it is sad that there are still a bunch of students who are sitting behind and chatting throughout the session. Despite me sounding them a couple of times, as well as their lecturers sounded them, they still act as if nothing has happened.

It is kind of sad to see such situation, and it seems that this is happening daily there.

To the blogger who shares here, it is definitely my hope that you would be taking initiative to support the lecturers, especially those who are trying to take initiative to educate the students, instead of feeding the students. Hopefully, we could gradually build a culture in our IPTAs and IPTSs, but the tough question is: how are we going to do that?

We can all make at least a little difference. Lets try our best!

Casper said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Casper said...

admired Charis's positive spirit in seeing a better future for Malaysia. This is something I sincerely hope although I think I need to work harder to convince myself that being optimistic is also being realistic at the same time.

In nearly every visions in education that the government has revealed so far, the word "Malaysian" can be replaced with the word 'Malay' and yet accurately reflect the government's intention.

The US would only has gone so far if it had pursue a policy that focus only on academic excellence of the academics with british or french or Spanish decendent.

The issue now is that the government chooses to be in state of development, much like a student chooses not to study and to fail an exam.

Incidently, an African businessman today annouced an annual prize ($5m on stepping down and $200k per year for life) for the leader that have done the most of his/her people. Maybe we need one for Asia also ?

Anonymous said...

To Charis and Shien Jin,

Both of you are asking for the impossible. Be realistic.

Malaysian Government is heavily dominated by industry-capitalist elements.

MCA is a “Puak Cina Kapitalis”.
Many UMNO top leaders have economic degree background or own their own business/companies.
That is why we have Government Linked-Companies, in the first place.

The main driver of Malaysia’s economy is manufacturing which we all know depends heavily on Foreign Direct Investment and Malaysia has always been a trading nation since the founding of Malacca Sultanate, in other words, there is no ways at all to allow people like you to be at the top of human food chain in Malaysia’s society.

There is NO WAY for Malaysia's industry-capitalists’ classes to relinquish one’s supreme position after attaining political power and hand them to a different class’s society.

Barisan National government means maintaining “Industry” and glorifies “Capitalist” and exterminating “Wood” and extinguishing “Fire”.
That is why we have “Brain Drain” occurrence.

Both of you can either stay and make the best you could to survive in USA, maybe carve out a successful career abroad or come back to Malaysia and become merchants, businessmen, petty traders, lecturers, or maybe production engineers or sales engineers.

Now how does that sound to you?

Or both of you prefer to shout “Overthrow Chin (Metal=Gold), Restore Ming (Bright=Fire)!!??

praveen said...

I'm an undergraduate student in UPM and i'll have to agree on the points here. I dont think the country is doing much for our researchers ( some of them who are certainly brilliant in their field). The pay is not attractive and neither are the grants. Its high time they started looking at their visions a little more realistically.

Anonymous said...

You are more likely to be head hunted by another country rather than your own if you are Nobel Material. For the record we have the youngest under graduate in
Sanford in 1997 at age 15 +. He probably graduated in 2001 and as far as I now is now with Micresoft after a short stint with Nobody is interested in talent so forget about world class and concentrate being "maju class" like Selangor.

Anonymous said...

We are going to space in 2007 so why do we need world class universites? And our mission is to put a man on the moon by 2020, only the second country to do so.

chenchow said...

One of the very recent development (26th Oct 2006), Cornell University has just launched a new effort to put itself as the Best Undergraduate Research University by 2015, where undergraduate, including first year student would be doing research on a significant basis.

This initiative is hoped to transform the landscape of undergraduate education, where students are still more towards taking courses. Cornell University is raising USD4 billion for that effort in its largest fund-raising effort done. A large portion of those funding, USD1.885 Billion will be spent on building up the faculty, to attract large number of top brains in the world.

Anonymous said...

My own sense of things is that in terms of priority for the government, pure research is still pretty low or at least uncertain. The focus on research is more for political purpose than faith in the value of research.

The priority of the government is still developing human resource to attract FDI. In that sense, the government believes that attracting good researchers will improve teaching and graduate skills and knowledge. Do they want good research? Who don't? Are they willing to pay the price? Not really.

What people don't know is that the likes of Intel, Microsoft, HP, Siemens have told the government that they are not increasing their investments because they can't get enough good quality researchers and post-grad students. They also tell the government that they see things getting worst because of brain-drain.

I know for a fact that the vast majority of higher value work in Intel, HP, Microsoft in Malaysia are filled by post-graduates non-bumiputeras who were educated overseas. Many were actually recruited overseas by the firm themselves and brought back. Increasingly its harder to do that despite the increase in number of Malaysian studying abroad and doing post-grad work.

If I were a Malaysian post-grad looking to come back to Asia and do research, I would rather try out Chinese, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore AND even AUS and NZ universities before even contemplating coming back to Malaysia.

We are far from being serious about research in this country. Its more a dream than real understanding and believe in research. Its more about fear of being left out of opportunities than about the will to chase after those opportunities.

In that sense Kian Ming is right, the most viable proposal is to focus on one good research university - create a group of elite Malay researchers to set the standards. For non-bumiputeras , unless you are willing to play second-fiddle and mediocre career for the the sake sentimentality of being Malaysian, you can forget about returning. Dr Lim Teck Ghee from ASLI and Terence Gomez will tell you that.

weishen said...

I agree with Kian Ming too by focussing on one university first. However, I can feel that the proposal of upgrading the universities into research universities sounds more like a political rhetoric to show that the government is doing something for the development of the country. I am not sure whether this is true. Well, it might be difficult to be completely meritocracy. I would suggest setting up a smaller unit to manage research. This unit must be completely fair in recruiting top brains from all over the world and these expatriats must be highly paid. I do think that a starting from a small unit is more manageable than restructuring the whole policy of the whole university. By doing so, we are able to attract talents and not compromising the current policy to safeguard the interest of Bumiputera. This might sound too ideal perhaps.

jerng said...

Hey, I commented on that article when it first appeared on the internet! Anyway, I've written before that even if a research university is not feasible, a much cheaper and thus feasible alternative... (though dependent on autodidactic spirits)... is to have a solid research LIBRARY in the middle of the Klang Valley.

Anonymous said...

BTW, RND is not only for university. Even if it is possible to develop a high-quality research university in Malaysia, the question of sustainability comes into question. Unless we are researching or developing something that Malaysia really needs or has impact on local industry.

A comment above is right in saying that the capitalists in control of the economy is hardly going to roll over and let the so-called brains to dominate in Malaysia, regardless of the race.

Unless there is a change in the economic policies to make Malaysia much more competitive and much more open. There is little hope that these traders, accountants, businessman etc will quietly surrender their power and influence, let alone funds for RND. Infact, I believe unlike science and technology, accounting in Malaysia is already world-class.

Only by opening our industries to global competition in that way that those capitalists currently protected by our distorted economic policies are exposed to competition from more advanced countries. In that case, they might have to realise that RND is important for their business. From then on, maybe they will be forced to share their power, influence and resources with the "brains" for RND.

My 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that Government spends "peanuts" on R&D in Malaysia. For a comparison, the total R&D budget for the 9th Malaysian plan is about MYR$2 billion , a doubling from the 8th Malaysian plan.

Even this is "peanuts" compared to NUS which has an annual R&D budget of about Sg$1 billion (MYR $2.3billion) or about 10 times the amount of Malaysia's entire national R&D spending. Even then NUS remains only at 19th place in the Times Education World Ranking and has yet to break into the top 10 place!

That is why I would dare to say that only monkeys conduct researches in Malaysian universities.

Anonymous said...

I really hope that our government or policy makers can notice this website and review the comments posted by the valuable education concerned people. Dear Malaysia politicians please don't talking bullshit again in the parliment, looking into the matters and take proper actions so that our malaysia universities can be ranked higher in the global top 100 universities.

Anonymous said...

I think the Malaysian government really has no intention of improving the education system. Why should they bother having an educated populace who will rise up and overthrow their corrupt governance? It is better to keep the populace minimally educated, sufficient to cater to the economy with their basic skills.

To quote George Orwell,

War is Peace,
Slavery is Freedom,
Ignorance is Strength

Anonymous said...

Although I agree with the many points raised by Shien Jin and Charis, I have to admit that while their concerns are valid, their suggestions are rather naive.

I obtained my doctoral degree abroad in a reputable university (among the top five in Australia), and indeed, I enjoyed doing research there and was able to publish well. Now, I am working in one of the local IPTAs as an academic.

The one thing I noticed that is vastly different between universities here and those abroad is the level of professionalism expected in all categories of staff. So far, the comments from other contributors to this blog are targeted at lecturers, students, researchers and politicians. Nobody pays attention to the support staff in universities who enabled researchers to do their job properly. In Australia, laboratory technicians and assistants are so professional that researchers just focus their energy and 'brain power' on research. Here, being a lecturer-researcher, I find myself having to change simple fuse in the laboratory equipment. To wait for a support staff to assist would just take ages, and most of them do not even know how to do perform simple technical maintenance. Within a typical Australian university, a department technician is even capable of repairing complex damages to high-end equipment. Such is the disparity in the level of professionalism.

In a typical Australia university, one just have to enter his/her research item requisition into an online purchase form, and the items required today is available for collection the next day. In any of our IPTAs, to buy a small bottle of chemical takes months to process. It is not just the bureaucratic redtapes, but the supporting clerical staff whose typical complacency tends to delay further the whole procurement process.

Say, in a company, even if the CEO and top executives are super efficient, they cannot assemble the products in the factories, or drive the lorries to send the goods to retailers. Support crew/staff are just as important in the universities, and most IPTAs do not have these 'enablers'.

The university that employs me now has had many attempts at getting expatriates from overseas, many of whom are authorities in their field. However, many of them have to return to their countries prematurely - not because of lower pay, limited funding or the local politics. Given free reign, they are also not able to perform as they had wanted, because in great universities like Harvard and Oxford, there is a lot of 'enablers' that these researchers can take forgranted, of which are missing here. If we bring in top foreign professors, we must also hire their team of supporting staff in order for them to make any of our IPTA great.

Some of the IPTAs have impressive facilities, but the day-to-day maintenance of these are often neglected. Furthermore, once these are damaged there is usually no one in the country to repair them, and they had to be sent overseas or expertise from abroad has to be flown in. These usually takes ages. Yes, indeed over the years many IPTAs' support staff have been sent for various training programs. Yet, what they learn stays only during that few days of training. It does not translate into services at the departments/universities they worked in. Many of these staff are permanent in status, and their services cannot be terminated based on a complacent attitude towards their work. By the General Order (work ethics regulation in this country), a civil servant can only be sacked on grounds of financial corruption, active involvement in politics, and perhaps (these days), irrefutable evidence implicating sexual misconduct at workplace.

To have a world class university in Malaysia means changing the working culture and mentality of the whole community. It is not as simple as upgrading salaries of lecturers, importing expertise or improving funding. What is the use of having a top professor from Harvard working here when even changing a light bulb in the lab will take many months to accomplish ???!!!